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Stories in North Carolina

Making Solar Wildlife-Friendly

Creating solutions to maximize conservation benefit from solar production.

North Carolina is among the top three states for solar electricity production nationwide, alongside California and Arizona.

As of April 2019, 5.37 percent of the state’s electricity was generated from solar production. That's enough to power a staggering 660,101 homes. Solar accounts for nearly $8 million total investment. With 11,423 installations covering 40,000 acres of land across the state, the industry is expected to grow in the coming years.

Unless sited on open land, brownfield, or previous development, these projects can sometimes require clearing of wooded areas due to the sheer size of utility-scale solar installations. As a result, habitats and ecosystems can be fragmented or disrupted.

The Nature Conservancy has developed a framework of six principles (in addition to the NC Solar Siting web map) for solar facility design aimed at reducing the landscape impacts of utility-scale solar development and promoting renewable energy. As part of the NC Pollinator Conservation Alliance (NCPCA), TNC works with state agencies and solar developers to recommend, implement, and test best management practices based on the principles.

Guiding Principles for Wildlife-Friendly Installations

We’re using the best available science to help solar developers design wildlife-friendly facilities specific to North Carolina. Below are the six principles of low impact solar siting and design:

  1. Avoid areas of high native biodiversity and high-quality natural communities
  2. Allow for wildlife connectivity, now and in the face of climate change
  3. Preferentially use disturbed or degraded lands
  4. Protect water quality and avoid erosion
  5. Restore native vegetation and grasslands
  6. Provide wildlife habitat

Best management practices are site-specific, so we’re working closely with the NCPCA and solar developers to ensure the best possible outcomes for wildlife. Several developers have recognized the need for better practices, and now we are beginning to see solar farms use wildlife-permeable fencing in North Carolina.

Views of a solar farm in Elon, North Carolina
Solar panels Views of a solar farm in Elon, North Carolina © Sydney Bezanson

Creating Wildlife Corridors

Utility-scale solar facilities must comply with the National Electric and National Fire Protection Codes, which require fencing that is at least seven feet high—occasionally with the top foot consisting of barbed wire. However, blocking off 20 to 35 acres of land in the middle of an ecosystem—especially forest habitat—can be detrimental to wildlife.

After TNC camera traps recorded an astounding success at one of Birdseye Renewable Energy’s Tennessee facilities, we recommended that Pine Gate Renewables implement this new system at sites in North Carolina, a decision that ultimately led to another fruitful relationship.

Once Pine Gate had installed the new wildlife-permeable fencing—with holes large enough for raccoons, rabbits and squirrels to fit through—TNC installed motion-sensitive cameras at the sites in Johnston and Moore Counties. These cameras have been in place since January 2019 and have already captured plenty of images showing wildlife interacting with the new boundary.

Wildlife-Friendly Fencing at Solar Farms A fox slides through wildlife-friendly fencing at a solar farm.

Developing Lasting Partnerships

Solar installations sited on disturbed or degraded lands or on rooftops and in urban environments are still preferred because they are less detrimental to natural ecosystems. But as new techniques develop and technology becomes cheaper, it’s possible this gap will start to close.

By continuing to pursue innovative ways to improve solar farms and other renewable energy sites, we can further lessen the impacts we have on wildlife habitats and help animals thrive. We’ll continue to work with partners and solar developers across the state to advance climate solutions that benefit both wildlife and people.